Choosing Natural Soap – How to Spot Melt and Pour, Detergents and Synthetic Fragrances

Choosing Natural Soap – How to Spot Melt and Pour, Detergents and Synthetic Fragrances


Melt and Pour Soap (aka Glycerin Soap)

If you’ve searched for handmade soap on crafty websites such as Etsy, you have probably come across melt and pour (MP) soap.  Etsy is filled with beautiful, brightly colored, sometimes translucent soaps in any array of interesting shapes, colors and sizes, also referred to  as “glycerin soap.”  MP soap is actually a blend of true soap ingredients (natural oils and lye) plus glycerin and synthetic ingredients ranging from alcohol-based emulfsifiers like sorbitol and sorbitan oleate to solvents like propylene glycol.  These chemicals allow the soap to melt (true soap doesn’t melt), giving the crafter a product that they can melt and form into any shape desired.  MP bases may also contain synthetic foamers such as sodium lauryl sulfate (also a detergent) and some are part soap/part detergents such as triethanolamine (one of the first ingredients in those clear Neutrogena bars, FYI).  Since MP soap is a less natural product to begin with, it’s also more likely that synthetic fragrances may be  used instead of true essential oils.

clear soap with duck

Another tell-tale sign of MP soap is that glycerin is in the ingredient list.  MP soap bases are  more drying (in soap-maker jargon, they are not “super-fatted”) so glycerin is added to keep the soap from being too harsh for skin while still allowing the product to be translucent (though not all MP soap is translucent and many MP soap bars actually look exactly the same as soap made from scratch).  In comparison, true handmade soap (made from scratch) has glycerin too, but it is part of the natural soap-making process and not added to the recipe.

On the bright side, MP soap bases can be purchased at local craft stores and are safe to use around children.  MP soap is made with lye, just like true soap, this step is just done for you beforehand (do not add lye to a MP base, you can make a soap that will burn you!). MP soap base is easy to work with and can be poured even into thin plastic molds and removed easily.  Depending on the recipe, it can even be remelted (alcohol-based MP bases are often a one-shot product, while bases with propylene glycol can be melted repeatedly).

If you are looking into making soap for the experience of the craft – coloring, using fun shapes or making attractive gifts, or you are afraid of working with lye, making MP soap is a nice alternative.  If you are looking to learn the skill of making true soap from scratch the way our ancestors did, or want to make the most natural and mild soap possible or suffer from chemical sensitivities, buying soap made from scratch or making soap from scratch yourself may be the best route for you.  Click here for our class schedule.  MP soap  may not be suitable for sensitive skin since it will some of the following synthetic ingredients:

Sorbitol:  Alcohol-based emulsifier & skin-softener.  Helps soap to melt.

Sorbitan oleate: Emulsfier.

Sodium lauryl sulfate:  Foamer.

Propylene glycol:  Solvent. Allows soap to melt.

Triethanolamine:  Petroleum-based detergent.

EDTA:  Chelating agent.

Fragrance OilFragrance Oils

One of the most common sources of chemical sensitivities are synthetic fragrances.  An ingredient  called “fragrance” or followed by FO (Fragrance Oil) tells you that the fragrance is synthetic. There is an enormous variety of synthetic fragrance oils and they can be tough to spot – some “sound plausible” like lilac, gardenia or blueberry, while others are easier to spot, like “baby powder.”  The key is whether it says FRAGRANCE or ESSENTIAL OIL. In comparison,  essential oils are highly concentrated and often medicinal plant essences.  They are also much more expensive than synthetic fragrance oils.


So that I don’t repeat myself, click here for my detailed look at the difference between soaps and detergents.  This review also covers what to look for on a label – to know if you are buying a bar of soap or bar of detergent.  To summarize, detergents are most often petroleum-based (though some are vegetable-based), while true soap is created using vegetable or animal fat.  Petroleum-based detergents lack the nutritional benefits (vitamins, minerals, anti-inflammatory compounds, etc.) that natural vegetable oils are loaded with.  Detergent-based cleansers are less expensive to make than olive oil-based true soap, which is why conventional “super-market” soaps are often more detergent than soap and are so inexpensive.  Labels can be tricky.  Soap-makers may EITHER list individual oils used (olive, coconut, castor, etc.) OR they may list each soap chemical name.  When soap-makers list the oils, the labels are self-explanatory.  If they list the soap’s chemical name, these names are usually two words and start with sodium or potassium.  “Sodium oleate (olive oil), sodium tallowate (beef tallow), sodium cocoate (coconut oil).”  Detergent names are more variable in their number of words.  “Sodium lauryl sulfate, triethanolamine, etc.”

So what?

When it comes to shopping for personal care products, find a brand that you trust and stick with it.  It can be an overwhelming process to always feel like you have to scrutinize and translate every label (though I HIGHLY recommend that people do this at least once or twice – pick a product that you love and look up every ingredient – it’s actually more fun than you might think and VERY enlightening).  As the owner of a company dedicated to using natural ingredients, of course I’d love your business.  But more importantly, I want people to feel informed and confident enough to purchase products that are a good fit for their skin and their conscience.  Know what’s in your products, know WHO is making your products (click here for a great blog on this topic by fellow natural product-maker, Yancy of Five Seed…e.g. Burt’s Bees is owned by Clorox, Aveeno by Johnson & Johnson), don’t be fooled by well-funded advertising or flashy product labels and certainly not by words like “natural” (this is not a regulated word)…the ingredient label is all you need to worry about.


About the Author: